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Uncle Sam Tells Big Oil to Pay Up

HOUSTON (CN)-The United States sued ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Texaco, and Chevron to recoup the $4.6 million it spent cleaning up a Houston property where the companies dumped hazardous waste.

Five other companies were also named as defendants in the federal complaint.

The site, referred to as "OU-1" in the complaint, is 36 acres in a mixed-use commercial and residential area.

A tenant, CanAm Resources Group, operated a business reclaiming metals from spent catalyst on OU-1 from 1986 and 1988, and the defendants sent spent catalyst there for disposal.

CanAm, which is not a party in the lawsuit, stored drums of spent catalyst on OU-1, and when it ceased operations in 1988 it abandoned 4,000 to 5,000 drums there, Uncle Sam says.

"Many of the drums contained spent catalyst, and some contained flammable and corrosive liquids and other liquid waste," according to the complaint.

Subsequent investigations by state and federal regulators showed elevated levels of lead, nickel and molybdenum in ground samples taken at the site, where materials had leaked or spilled from drums.

The Environmental Protection Agency "determined that some of the drums were in advanced stages of deterioration and that some drums had already deteriorated to the point of discharging hazardous substances onto the ground" in September 1998, the complaint states.

The EPA stabilized about 600 drums on OU-1 that contained flammable, corrosive liquids and liquid waste from March to June 1999. In May 1999, the EPA issued a "Unilateral Administrative Order for Removal Response Activities ('UAO') to eleven (11) potentially responsible parties," telling them to remove drums from the site, and remove visibly contaminated soil near the drum storage areas.

But even after these efforts, a 2003 EPA investigation found the site's soil contaminated with lead, and groundwater contaminated with "molybdenum, benzo(a)pyrene, total petroleum hydrocarbons, and other hazardous substances," the USA says.

Clinton Gregg Investments bought OU-1 in a bankruptcy auction in March 2006, and entered into an "Agreed Order on Consent and Covenant Not to Sue" with the United States. Clinton Gregg Investments implemented the EPA's "long-term remedy" for the site in 2008, and continues to monitor its groundwater, the USA says.

All told, the United States spent $4.6 million cleaning up the site.

"On at least two occasions, by letters dated May 6, 2002 and June 4, 2007, EPA made a demand of defendants for payment of the response costs EPA has incurred in connection with OU-1," the government says. "To date, no defendant has reimbursed EPA for any portion of its unreimbursed past response costs."

Also named as defendants are Ashland, Eurecat US, Akzo Nobel, Flint Hills Resources and Irving Oil.

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